ESPN’s NHL Coverage Creates Hot Sound on the Ice

Audio effort means more mics on the nets, more talk time for players

ESPN is venturing out on what will be its most ambitious audio outing yet for its NHL coverage. Innovations include an inventive approach to capturing sound in and around the goals, more — and more integrated — player audio, and more effects microphones in and around the rink.

ESPN lead A1 Dan “Buddha” Bernstein notes proudly what he called the network’s boldest audio move: an array of three RF lav mics in an L-C-R configuration, which creates what he calls a surround-type sonic environment around the goals.

A1 Dan “Buddha” Bernstein: “In game coverage, [an array of three RF lav mics will provide] a much more crisp and dynamic sound around the goal.”

The arrays are the result of extensive experimentation with placement and processing. Notably, the center mic is processed through a DTS Neural Mono2Stereo processor (either a hardware or Waves plug-in version, depending on what’s available aboard the mobile production unit) and panned wide and to the rear of the 5.1-surround mix to enable Bernstein or A1 Steve Miller, on alternating broadcasts, to keep the announcer audio clear and intelligible in the same center channel.

“In game coverage,” says Bernstein, “it will feel like a much more crisp and dynamic sound around the goal. It adds a little inherent delay, so it feels almost like reverb around the crease, but it really fills out the sound. And if we do a real-time replay from the cameras in the net, it’ll put you directly in that environment, which can be pretty exciting, sonically.”

Noting that the new approaches to hockey sound remind him of mixing X Games for ESPN, he adds that the new net array is the logical conclusion to two decades of focusing on that key point on the ice but it had to overcome some significant challenges.

“We were doing it 20 years ago when I was first doing hockey with ESPN, using a single microphone, which got great sounds,” Bernstein explains. “But one of the requests from production this year was they wanted to feel more life around the creases. However, we could put microphones only where the NHL allows us to mount them, and there is a finite amount of space in the goal to put transmitters, with all of the cameras and other electronics that are in there. So three [microphones] seemed like the most we could put in there and still maintain the amount of space that we needed for separation between the transmitters [to prevent] intermodulation between them.”

And the outcome, he adds, has been spectacular: “During our game in Chicago the other night, one particular goal that was scored rang off one of the pipes, and it sounded like an explosion! In a way, it’s a similar effect to what we have been able to accomplish on Sunday Night Baseball with microphones around home plate, where it feels like a sonic experience and not just like a random noise occurring in the course of the game.”

Player Audio Is Complicated

ESPN can place microphones on up to two players per side and is using the Q5X PlayerMic for that application. What’s different this season is that the same mics will also be used for on-ice interviews before and during breaks in the games, with the athletes also fitted with wireless IFBs.

The technique lets the audio follow the player through various environments throughout the match but comes with its own challenges because each environment has its own sonic characteristics. For instance, the action around play has one type of ambience, and an on-ice interview will have the player’s voice competing with the PA system, which Bernstein says is usually at its loudest before the game and during breaks.

The solution he has devised is to create two separate input channels for the same PlayerMic, each channel with equalization and dynamics parameters tuned for the specific ambient environment.

“One version of it gets isolated to tape for recording and package playback,” he explains. “The other version I would use live for an interview, with less low end and more high mids to cut through the ambient thump of the arena. It’s an exciting innovation and an opportunity that I haven’t seen before: having the player out in their natural environment, skating around and talking to us and interviewing with and interacting with teammates and others on the ice. We’re fighting the PA a bit, but it’s also part of the natural environment.”

Crowd microphones this season are much the same as before: at booth level, a surround array of Sennheiser 416 shotguns for the front left and right and a pair of Audio-Technica 5100’s for the surrounds. The mics focused on the rink also are mostly the same as in past years, including a dozen boundary mics around the outside of the glass, but Bernstein says the techniques for using them have been ramped up.

“One of the other things that I’ve tried to do this year,” he says, “is to be much more aggressive with stereo shotgun microphones on the robo cameras that are all around the ice — right above, in the center in the penalty box area of the ice, on the bench area of the ice — to get more-effective coverage of the center of the rink. The center of the ice has always been a sort of fallow area for sound because microphones around the perimeter are so far away from the center of the ice.”

Atmos and Skate Effects Are Down the Road

ESPN looked at a couple of other audio tricks for this season, including the use of Dolby Atmos format and placement of microphones in the ice to catch skate effects. Bernstein says the latter idea has been sidelined, at least for regular-season play, because of the amount of time it takes to install an in-ice array; it may be implemented for the postseason and Stanley Cup Finals.

ESPN’s Mike Foss: “I would expect some developments [in Dolby Atomos] maybe towards the end of the season.”

Regarding Atmos, ESPN Senior Director, Remote Production Operations, Mike Foss says, “We were looking at it, and I would expect some developments maybe towards the end of the season, but nothing at this point.”

But, he adds, ESPN’s preseason experiments have given the network a lot to work with already: “We had a rehearsal session down in Tampa Bay for two games that did not air. We used [them] as a platform to demonstrate and to get approval for all this technology, in the goals but also that area around the goal and even in the dashers right behind, where there’s a lot of player and ref interaction.

“The NHL,” he continues, “have been tremendous partners in sharing that vision and allowing us to push in areas that include audio and opportunities with players and referees. But, as good as the technology this year is, it doesn’t operate itself. There has to be a great understanding of the game, and there has to be great sound design behind it. We’re going to continue to learn as we move through the season, we’re going to continue to make tweaks and smart adjustments, but it’s the people behind that technology that I think are going to differentiate us as we move forward.”

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